When we honor life but don’t make it a big deal, we lighten up, open up, and become more joyous. The fancy name for that, says Pema Chödrön, is enlightenment.
Meditation teaches us how to let go. It’s actually a very important aspect of friendliness, which is that you train again and again in not making things such a big deal. When you have pain in your body, when all sorts of thoughts are going through your mind, you train again and again in acknowledging them openheartedly and open-mindedly, but not making them such a big deal.
Generally speaking, the human species does make things a very big deal. Our problems are a big deal for us. So we need to make space for an attitude of honoring things completely and at the same time not making them a big deal. It’s a paradoxical idea, but holding these two attitudes simultaneously is the source of enormous joy: we hold a sense of respect toward all things, along with the ability to let go. So it’s about not belittling things, but on the other hand not fanning the fire until you have your own private World War III.
Keeping these ideas in balance allows us to feel less crowded and claustrophobic. In Buddhist terms, the space that opens here is referred to as shunyata, or “emptiness.” But there’s nothing nihilistic about this emptiness. It’s basically just a feeling of lightness. There is a movie entitled The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but I prefer to see life from the view of the Bearable Lightness of Being.
Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attaining something that we don’t have right now.
When you begin to see life from the point of view that everything is spontaneously arising and that things aren’t “coming at you” or “trying to attack you,” in any given moment you will likely experience more space and more room to relax into. Your stomach, which is in a knot, can just relax. The back of your neck, which is all tensed up, can just relax. Your mind, which is spinning and spinning like one of those little bears that you wind up so it walks across the floor, can just relax. So shunyata refers to the fact that we actually have a seed of spaciousness, of freshness, openness, relaxation, in us.
Sometimes the word shunyata has been translated as the “open dimension of our being.” The most popular definition is “emptiness,” which sounds like a big hole that somebody pushes you into, kicking and screaming: “No, no! Not emptiness!” Sometimes people experience this openness as boredom. Sometimes it’s experienced as stillness. Sometimes it’s experienced as a gap in your thinking and your worrying and your all-caught-up-ness.
I experiment with shunyata a lot. When I’m by myself and no one’s talking to me, when I’m simply going for a walk or looking out the window or meditating, I experiment with letting the thoughts go and just seeing what’s there when they go. This is actually the essence of mindfulness practice. You keep coming back to the immediacy of your experience, and then when the thoughts start coming up—thoughts like bad, good, should, shouldn’t, me, jerk, you, jerk—you let those thoughts go, and you come back again to the immediacy of your experience. This is how we can experiment with shunyata, how we can experiment with the open, boundless dimension of being.
Enlightenment—full enlightenment—is perceiving reality with an open, unfixated mind, even in the most difficult circumstances. It’s nothing more than that, actually. You and I have had experiences of this open, unfixated mind. Think of a time when you have felt shock or surprise; at a time of awe or wonder we experience it. It’s usually in small moments, and we might not even notice it, but everyone experiences this open, so-called enlightened mind. If we were completely awake, this would be our constant perception of reality. It’s helpful to realize that this open, unfettered mind has many names, but let’s use the term “buddhanature.”
You could say it’s as if we are in a box with a tiny little slit. We perceive reality out of that little slit, and we think that’s how life is. And then as we meditate—particularly if we train in the way that I’m suggesting—if we train in gentleness, and if we train in letting go, if we bring relaxation as well as faithfulness to the technique into the equation; if we work with open eyes and with being awake and present, and if we train that way moment after moment in our life—what begins to happen is that the crack begins to get bigger. It’s as if we perceive more. We develop a wider and more tolerant perspective.
It might just be that we notice that we’re sometimes awake and we’re sometimes asleep; or we notice that our mind goes off, and our mind comes back. We begin to notice—the first big discovery, of course—that we think so, so much. We begin to develop what’s called prajna, or “clear wisdom.” With this clear wisdom, we are likely to feel a growing sense of confidence that we can handle more, that we can even love more.
Perhaps there are times when we are able to climb out of the box altogether. But believe me, if that happened too soon, we would freak out. Usually we’re not ready to perceive out of the box right away. But we move in that direction. We are becoming more and more relaxed with uncertainty, more and more relaxed with groundlessness, more and more relaxed with not having walls around us to keep us protected in a little box or cocoon.
Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attaining something that we don’t have right now. Enlightenment is when the blinders start to come off. We are uncovering the true state, or uncovering buddhanature. This is important because each day when you sit down, you can recognize that it’s a process of gradually uncovering something that’s already here. That’s why relaxation and letting go are so important. You can’t uncover something by harshness or uptightness because those things cover our buddhanature. Stabilizing the mind, bringing out the sharp clarity of mind, needs to be accompanied by relaxation and openness.
You could say that this box we’re in doesn’t really exist. But from our point of view, there is a box, which is built from all the obstructions, all the habitual patterns and conditioning that we have created in our life. The box feels very, very real to us. But when we begin to see through it, to see past it, this box has less and less power to obstruct us. Our buddhanature is always here, and if we could be relaxed enough and awake enough, we would experience just that.
So trust this gradualness and welcome in a quality of patience and a sense of humor, because if the walls came down too fast we wouldn’t be ready for it. It would be like a drug trip where you have this mind-blowing experience but then you can’t integrate the new way of seeing and understanding into your life.
The path of meditation isn’t always a linear path. It’s not like you begin to open, and you open more and more and you settle more and more, and then all of a sudden the confining box is gone forever. There are setbacks. I often see with students a kind of “honeymoon period” when they experience a time of great openness and growth in their practice, and then they have a kind of contraction or regression. And this is often terribly frightening or discouraging for many students. A regression in your practice can create crippling doubt and a lot of emotional setback. Students wonder if they’ve lost their connection to meditation forever because the “honeymoon period” felt so invigorating, so true.
But change happens, even in our practice. This is a fundamental truth. Everything is always changing because it’s alive and dynamic. All of us will reach a very interesting point in our practice when we hit the brick wall. It’s inevitable. Change is inevitable with relationships, with careers, with anything. I love to talk to people on the meditation path when they’re at the point of the brick wall: they think they’re ready to quit, but I feel they’re just beginning. If they could work with the unpleasantness, the insult to ego, the lack of certainty, then they’re getting closer to the fluid, changing, real nature of life.
Hitting the brick wall is just a stage. It means you’ve reached a point where you’re asked to go even further into open acceptance of life as it is, even into the unpleasant feelings of life. The real inspiration comes when you finally join in with that fluidity, that openness. Before, you were cruising with your practice, feeling certain about it, and that feeling can be “the best” in many ways. And then wham! You’re given a chance to go further.